Hollywood, the Dream Factory. Ask any classic film fan and they’ll reiterate that classic films have an elegance, a fantastical quality that invites us, however briefly, into a fantasy world that, despite its illusory nature, we wished was our daily life. Watching Latin Lovers reminded me of the Dream Factory because much of Mervyn LeRoy’s film looks like a beautifully swathed dream someone like Lana Turner would glide through. Despite being another vehicle showcasing Turner’s patented “poor little rich girl,” and a relationship so disturbing you’ll be tempted to think E.L. James borrowed it for her books, it’s hard avoiding the seduction of all the beauty on display, richly detailed in Warner Archive’s latest DVD.
Nora Taylor (Turner) is an American businesswoman with a fortune of $37 million. Discontent with the man desperate to marry her, Nora travels to Brazil as a means of getting her soon-to-be fiance to fight for her. Instead, Nora meets Brazilian playboy Roberto Santos (Ricardo Montalban) who sweeps Nora off her feet. But will Nora’s money be a problem to their burgeoning relationship?
Filmed a year after Turner’s team-up with Fernando Lamas, The Merry Widow, Latin Lovers was meant to star both of those actors, but Lamas and Turner ended up splitting. Having the upper hand in this film’s production, Turner demanded Lamas be replaced and Ricardo Montalban stepped in, making this the second Montalban film out in 1953; Sombrero came out just four months prior.
Seeing Lamas in the role of a flirtatious, domineering Brazilian is a no-brainer, par for his persona (and, according to wife Esther Williams, part of his personality). Montalban, himself a discount Lamas to the studios, ably fills the role of Roberto. He has rules for how his woman will act, and dammit if she doesn’t wait for him when he’s working, or be willing to give up whatever she has to in order to please him.
Sorry, but much of Latin Lovers’ gender dynamics are woefully dated, and it ends up ruining what could have been a delightful little romantic comedy. Much of this back-and-forth is played off as a “Latin” thing and plays on stereotypes of uber-masculine “latin lovers,” from Montalban just randomly grabbing Nora to make out with her – she’s a woman isn’t she? Prime make-out material – to demanding her unwavering obedience are cultural identifiers American audiences assume about Latin men and, as the movie “proves,” rightfully so. Ironically, American had Latins on the brain, whether it was Desi Arnaz’s Ricky Ricardo (Montalban’s songs sound like Club Babalu B-sides) or America’s overthrow of several Latin dictators during 1953/1954, leaving Latin Lovers in the liminal space between travelogue and Latin catalog.
But the Latin flavor appropriately spices things up. The score is peppered with rumba-beats and Montalban and Turner engage in an elegantly choreographed samba. On top of that, everything is filmed towards capturing the beautiful Brazilian colors. Turner’s costumes aren’t particularly outrageous, but her monochromatic outfits – and one androgynous riding outfit that looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous on her – but that’s because they’re used towards complimenting the items around her. A lavender couch in her hotel room, with pillows of various complimentary shades, evoke just the right Brazilian touches without assaulting the eyes with bright color.
As for Turner herself, this is another “Lana Turner” character and performance. After watching several of her films she was an actress completely hobbled by her persona as a clotheshorse. Barbara La Marr may have been dubbed “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful,” but Lana Turner, in what I’ve seen, always plays the girl too beautiful to function. Despite having a seemingly successful business, Turner’s Nora Taylor is unable to find a man uninterested in her “marbles,” or money. This does lead to some great moments with her psychoanalyst (Eduard Franz) in gags meant to poke fun at the couch-based therapy, content to leave his wife and, presumably, a choking baby, to deal with Nora’s problems. Even the man who’s seemingly perfect for her (John Lund, as blonde and white as can be), soon reveals that their pairing works more from a financial sense. But nearly every interaction between Turner and a male has to begin with them stopping in their tracks at her beauty, or at least commenting on how gorgeous she is. Turner, and the mandates of her persona, is a Helen of Troy, doing little more than being defined by her beauty. And while the money could be the perfect metaphor for these restrictions, the audience has a hard time buying it because of Turner and the stories associated with her. Even divorcing the headlines from the woman, Nora has an overabundance of costume changes, negating the idea that she’s “just folks.”
Isobel Lennart’s script provides some great, biting criticisms against man intimidated by a woman of means, having Nora opine about how money doesn’t define her and how she didn’t ask for it. Although, there appears to be confusion as to how Nora obtained the money. We start by watching her delegate a business meeting, implying that the funds were earned through hard work, but Roberto believes she’s a highfalutin’ heiress with funds that fell into her lap, and the script never really decides. Whether you have an MBA or not, Nora ends up “winning” Roberto by making the worst business decision ever which dulls the point she seemingly tried to prove.
The side characters here are just as captivating as the leads although it’s outrageous having Jean Hagen playing a lowly secretary just a year after her award-worthy turn as Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Louis Calhern is also dapper as Montalban’s slightly tipsy grandfather.
Latin Lovers is summed up in one word: “querida,” or darling. Out of an entire conversation where Roberto gets the upper hand, Nora, the apparently smart businesswoman, only hears him call her darling. Okay, so the politics are suspect but the movie looks beautiful, the musical elements are fun, and everything is just so…darling. I slapped my head a few times, but I was more than wrapped up in the dream factory on display.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.